Painful swallowing is relatively common. People of all ages may
experience it. This symptom has many possible causes. Difficulty swallowing
along with pain is generally a symptom of an infection or an allergic reaction.
See your doctor if the pain is severe or if it interferes with eating,
drinking, or breathing.
of painful swallowing
The most common causes of painful swallowing are:
Other possible causes of painful
- swollen lymph nodes in
- a throat injury
- an ear infection
- swallowing large pills
- improperly swallowing
jagged food, such as chips or crackers
cases, painful swallowing can indicate certain types of cancer, such as esophageal cancer.
are possible complications?
Conditions that cause painful
swallowing can lead to complications such as:
- chest infections
- worsening bacterial or
- a loss of taste, which
may be temporary or permanent
- swollen lymph nodes in
the neck, which may make it difficult to turn your head or to lean
your head back
Other symptoms that may occur if you have an infection
You may experience the following
symptoms along with painful swallowing if you have an infection:
- a fever
- a headache
- a dry cough
- red, inflamed tonsils
to call your doctor
Call your child’s pediatrician if
they experience the following symptoms along with painful swallowing:
- difficulty breathing
- problems swallowing
- an unusual or
significant amount of drooling
- a visibly swollen throat
to the hospital right away if you’re an adult and experience the following
- difficulty opening your
- problems swallowing
- extreme throat pain that
- trouble breathing
an appointment with your doctor if your painful swallowing occurs along with
any of the following:
- blood when you cough
- symptoms that last one week
- a hoarse voice that
lasts longer than two weeks
- joint pain
- a lump in your neck
- a rash
call your doctor if you’re experiencing any other symptoms that concern you.
Diagnosing the cause of painful swallowing
When visiting your doctor, make sure to mention every
symptom you’re experiencing. You should also tell them if any symptoms are new
or getting worse. Describing all of your symptoms will help your doctor
determine the cause of your pain.
If a physical examination isn’t enough to determine a
diagnosis, your doctor may order certain tests, such as the following:
blood test called a complete blood count measures the amount of different types of blood cells in
your body. The results can help your doctor determine whether your body is
fighting off an infection caused by a virus or bacteria.
- MRI and CT
scans can produce detailed images of your throat, allowing your doctor to
check for any abnormalities. These imaging tests might also be used to
detect the presence of tumors in the throat.
- A throat swab culture involves taking a
sample of mucus from the back of your throat. This test can check for the
presence of certain kinds of organisms in the throat that could cause an
- A sputum culture consists of obtaining a
sample of sputum, or phlegm, and testing it for the presence of certain
organisms. This simple, painless test can help your doctor determine whether
an infection is causing your painful swallowing.
Barium swallow test
barium swallow test includes a series of X-rays
of your esophagus. You get the X-rays after you swallow a special liquid
containing a harmless element called barium. Barium temporarily coats your
esophagus and shows up on an X-ray, allowing your doctor to trace the pathway
of your food. The barium swallow test can show your doctor whether food is
traveling from your mouth to your stomach properly.
Treatment for painful swallowing
Treatment for painful swallowing can
vary depending on the cause of the pain. Your doctor will likely prescribe
antibiotics to treat infections of the throat, tonsils, or esophagus. Your
doctor may give you a mouthwash that can numb your throat while you take oral antibiotics.
This numbing agent helps to block any pain you may feel when swallowing the
pill. For severe pain, a throat spray can help numb the pain. Your doctor may
also prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to reduce inflammation in the
esophagus, throat, or tonsils.
If you frequently experience painful swallowing due to
recurring tonsillitis or if your tonsillitis doesn’t respond to medication,
your doctor may recommend surgery to remove your tonsils. This surgery is
called a tonsillectomy. It’s an outpatient procedure, which means you can go
home the same day as the surgery. You and your doctor can discuss your risks
and determine whether a tonsillectomy is appropriate for your condition.
Over-the-counter (OTC) antacids
may relieve swelling in the esophagus due to acid reflux. However, your doctor
will prescribe medications that are specifically designed to provide relief
from symptoms if you have chronic acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux
disease (GERD). Taking OTC antacids sometimes isn’t enough to treat the
symptoms of GERD.
Other treatments you can try at
home include the following:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
Aside from keeping you hydrated, drinking at least eight glasses of water
per day also soothes and moistens your throat.
- Mix 1 teaspoon of salt
in 8 ounces of water, and then gargle it in the back of your throat. This
helps to relieve swelling and pain.
- Sip warm liquids, such
as warm water or tea mixed with honey, to relieve swelling and pain in the
- Avoid substances that are
known to irritate your throat. These include allergens, chemicals, and
Breathe in moist air
humidifier is a machine that converts water to moisture that slowly fills the
air. A humidifier increases the humidity in a room. Breathing in this moist air
can ease throat inflammation and provide relief from a sore throat. Taking a
hot shower also has a similar effect.
Try herbal lozenges and teas
they haven’t been scientifically proven to ease sore throats, herbal lozenges and
teas can reduce throat pain. Examples include sage, licorice root, and
honeysuckle flower. You may able to find these at your local drugstore or
health food store.
What you can do now
Try OTC medication and home remedies to ease your pain. You
may have an infection or temporary illness that you can treat effectively at
home. However, you should call your doctor if your pain becomes more severe or
if your pain doesn’t subside within three days. You should also contact your
doctor if you’re experiencing any other symptoms that concern you.
Wash your hands regularly and to avoid sharing eating
utensils or drinking glasses with other people to prevent spreading any
possible infection. Staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest are also
important for ensuring your recovery.